It’s easy to know that Frankie Whelehan is back in the hotel business.
He’s talking, and spending, millions of euros. On the one hotel. The Montenotte, high above Cork city.
And, this €5m refurbishment project won’t even see a single extra bedroom added.
The effervescent former founder and head of the Choice Hotel group at peak had 24 hotels under his various brands and control, employing close to 2,000 in the hospitality sector in the run-up to and during the Celtic Tiger era.
Now, after a gruelling workout with Nama, and dealing in other related hospitality and procurement companies (and after Dalata scooped up much of his Choice portfolio and came back with a further €40m for the leasehold interest on four of his ‘stable’), Whelehan is back to basics, in full family ownership of the Montenotte Hotel with its ‘mere’ 107 beds, 19 guest suites and leisure centre.
To anyone else, conceiving and supervising a €5m overhaul, bedrooms refurb, new function space, bar, restaurant and reception repositioning, adding a sun terrace for elevated views over the River Lee and Cork city, and fashioning an in-hotel cinema, while all the time trading and serving guests, would be a full-time business, a hard-hatted headache.
Not so for Frankie Whelehan: he could do it almost as a hobby.
Exuding the same excitement and speed as he ever did when cutting deals and springing up new hotels (he ran the Choice, Clarion, Quality and Comfort Inn brands, with reaches into the UK also) it’s now come down to this investment, and reinvestment.
He sees huge scope to reposition The Montenotte at the upper end of the four-star hotel market in Cork city.
Last month, he brought in builders KPH under architects PLM to reconfigure the hotel’s public spaces, improve facilities, enhance the almost 100 bedrooms at a cost of €10,000 per room, whilst a key feature will be a 12 metre deep, wide terrace put on the main hotel block’s south-facing facade.
With screens for weather cover as needed, the terrace will give an incredible viewing platform and add a whole new dimension to The Montenotte, comparable to the views back in the day from the old Arbutus Hotel 100 yards away down the hill from this great perch.
“I’m going to match the product with personality,” he promises, knowing that The Montenotte is a place that probably under-sold, or under-pitched itself down the years, despite a quite notable pedigree.
Whelehan first came to Montenotte (the Cork ‘merchant prince’ suburb was named after a famous Napoleonic battle in 1796) back in 2006.
With partners John Gatley and Noel Condon, he bought what had been the Country Club hotel and venue from Don Moore, whose father Pierce Moore developed it back in the 1960s, around an earlier villa residence, still at the building’s core under copper domes.
Whelehan and his partners added more bedrooms and 19 guest apartments or suites for longer stays, plus a leisure centre in a multi-million euro expansion.
In contrast, by June this current €5m additional investment, after the departure of John Gately and Noel Condon, will be completed “without adding a single extra bedroom” says Whelehan, almost wryly noting the drop from 2,000 bedrooms “and from 24 hotels to one”.
Aged in his mid-40s, and a father of three daughters, the Co Westmeath man swears it isn’t the start of another chain, and has firm plans for The Montenotte.
“It’s going to be a local hotel, that’s important, I want people in the locality and city to feel like it is theirs,” he says, possibly linking up with concerts in St Luke’s church, and sending guests down to Henchys for a pint, and hoping for some reciprocation.
His cinema, aimed primarily at guests and possibly movie clubs, will be called The Cameo, a nod to the former Military Hill cinema of that name
Having made the Clarion Hotel on Lapps Quay the outright success it was (it had Ireland’s highest hotel bed occupancy rates, and sold last year for €35m, to Dalata who’ll shortly rebrand it as a Clayton), he also will chase the corporate sector, keen to get a slice of business from the likes of Tyco, Apple, EMC and the IDA.
A further stage will be to make better use of The Montenotte’s acres of quite vertiginous and verdant, gardens. But, don’t expect the owner to stay on gardening leave very long.
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